Signed to the Streets: UChicago Professor Explores Connection Between South Side Gangs and Drill Rap

You can’t understand gang violence—and you certainly can’t understand youth culture in Chicago—without thinking long and hard about music.

By Miriam Benjamin

To everyone worried that UChicago will remain a nerd school until the end of time, fear not—Forrest Stuart, a UChicago professor in the Sociology Department, was recently interviewed by music media heavyweight Noisey for a documentary on Chicago hip-hop. The YouTube documentary explores the social history of the South Side, highlighting its role in the emergence of Chicago’s drill rap scene. Drill rap, a subgenre of hip-hop, is characterized by trap-influenced beats and ultra-violent lyrics. Many drill pioneers like Chief Keef and Lil Durk have gone on to achieve mainstream recognition and success. Drill’s detractors charge the genre with the exacerbation of gang violence—however, after spending a year doing research on a Chicago gang/drill rap group, Stuart sees the relationship not as causal, but inextricably related. 

The Maroon sat down with Stuart to discuss drill rap and gangs on the South Side.

Chicago Maroon: You’re interested in music and social factors and how they relate to urban poverty. Did that start in California, where you’re from, or only when you came to Chicago?

Forrest Stuart: It’s something that started accidentally. The accident, I hope, is a sign of doing good research. I’ve [previously] studied policing, and I’ve got a book coming out in a couple months about policing in L.A.’s Skid Row. One of the things that I found there was that in really criminalized, minority, poor communities, there’s this whole range of really savvy, sophisticated, but also sometimes debilitating strategies that residents take up in order to avoid being put up against a wall and handcuffed.

When I got to Chicago, I was interested in taking a comparative case—looking at black youth on the South Side. And so I set up lots of interviews, and talked to people about how they avoid getting stopped by cops. In the midst of those interviews, we started talking less about cops and more about the gangs in local neighborhoods.

I was bowled over by the fact that all these kids could keep track of day-to-day gang wars, gang truces, and gang stalemates that were going on across the city. So I began asking young people, “Okay, 69th and Princeton: what gang is there, who are they fighting with, tell me everything.” And even kids who didn’t live in these neighborhoods could do so. I got to the point where I was like, “How the hell are you doing this? How do you know so much about every single gang conflict that’s going on across the city?” And they were like, “Dude”—looking at me like I’m an idiot—“It’s the music.” They can listen to any drill rap group that has grown out of gangs here in Chicago—listen to the disses in their songs, who they’re shouting out in their songs, what individuals they’re talking about—and use [this information] to keep themselves safe.

I hear all these stories about how somebody would be walking through a neighborhood that they don’t know—and just [by] keeping their ears open and hearing what was being played on stoops or in passing cars—be able to tell, okay, this is Black Disciple territory, [and they] appear to be somewhat okay with a nearby Gangster Disciples faction, because they’re playing their music. There’s a sonic landscape that overlays the physical and social landscape, and gangs are somewhere in between.

That’s my long story of the accident by which I came upon thinking about popular culture, social media, and music in ways that I didn’t expect. As I’ve gone on to argue, you can’t understand gang violence—and you certainly can’t understand youth culture in Chicago—without thinking long and hard about music.

CM: What is the role of youth in drill?

FS: I think the answer [lies in] the changing economic and organizational landscape we see in poor neighborhoods. If we think back to the 1980s, during the crack epidemic, gangs are corporatizing: developing vertical, formal, hierarchical structures. If you’re a 13-year-old young man growing up in a housing project or in a poor neighborhood in Chicago, you look to that organizational structure, which operates like a parallel government. These people protect the community when the police won’t. The gang occupies an important role, both as a quasi-state and as a track by which people achieve our American ethos—you start as a foot soldier, you prove your merit, and you work your way up in the organization. The local gang structure is a career path for people who are locked out of the formal education system and job market.

But that declines in the 1990s. The Chicago Police Department, departments across the country, [and] the FBI start using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) to behead all of these corporate gangs. If a young person was caught with a gun, or drugs, they were like, “Hey, we’ll cut you some slack if you give us the person ahead of you.” Eventually, they were able to put all of the leaders away for a while, and the gang structure crumbled.

CM: A power vacuum?

FS: Absolutely, but what also happened is [that] nobody else wanted to step up. Because suddenly, leadership ceased to be something that would help them get out of the hood, and became a liability. And when they brought down the housing projects, it dispersed [different gangs] out across the city. So [there was] a lack of leadership and intermixing of gangs.

Chief Keef, in the mythology of poor Chicagoans, becomes the modern-day equivalent of the Robin Hood-esque gang and drug leader. He becomes the symbol of how [youth] can get out of the hood. Drill has become this way of, “If I get enough views on YouTube, if I put enough guns in my videos, if I show that I am a real gangster like Chief Keef did…somebody—Kanye, Jay Z, Interscope—is gonna swoop in, grab me, grab my guys, and take me to L.A., where I’m safe, I’m paid, and I’ve finally made it out.”

So [youths] began to form groups among themselves, and we see a re-organization of gangs around the production of drill rap. You’ll see a drill rapper or two, and a couple shooters that surround them, and then a bunch of guys around them who are the support staff. Although there’s still drugs going on, the commodity has ceased to be crack-dealing. [It’s] now the dealing of music, so to speak.

CM: Although there are some female drill rappers, like Katie Got Bandz and Sasha Go Hard, why aren’t there as many women in drill rap?

FS: I think some of it we can chalk up to [gangs in Chicago] being a hyper-masculine space to begin with, [although] savvy drill rappers and producers know that there’s a space for [female drillers]. If nothing else, Katie Got Bandz adds something new and exciting—a different style,a different kind of voice. It seems like there’s a logical progression with genres to become more open, more mainstream-friendly. I think, in some sense, Katie Got Bandz is a movement by a smart person—like [associate] King Louie—saying, “Hey, we want to grab more of an audience.”

CM: Do any non-drill Chicago rappers have a place in your research?

FS: Not a whole lot of room, because my way into this is through gangs and gang violence. I’m not a hip-hop studies person, I’m not even a music sociologist. I’m an urban sociologist and criminologist who’s interested in gang violence—it just so happens that much of the gang violence is driven by drill rap. My book is on one particular drill rap group/gang, one of the top five in Chicago right now.

CM: Which one?

FS: I can’t say, unfortunately. But [anyway], when Chance the Rapper was in the news, I asked, “Hey, what do you think about Chance the Rapper?” And they were like, “Who’s Chance the Rapper?”

It’s a pretty insular world. [Chance] is not even in their orbit—they had never heard his music. So I think maybe that contrast is something that folks from outside of the drill scene impose. The distinction between someone like Chance doing “good, well-meaning, socially conscious” rap and drill rap is a dichotomy that doesn’t necessarily exist in the heads of folks making drill. [It’s] something we’re imposing on musical worlds to make sense of it. For these guys, the musical world is fellow drill rappers, [and] that’s kind of it.

CM: That reminds me of Lil Durk, who I feel like—I don’t wanna say he’s softening up a bit, but…

FS: I think Durk hit a place where he had to make this choice, [and] I feel like all the drillers that I’m researching are [also] willing to make that choice. They know that it’s the hyper-violent voyeurism and slumming that the mainstream wants to do through their music. They embody these scary, young, super-predator black men, and they’re willing to perform in vaudeville fashion to get enough views, to get enough likes, to get signed. At that point, they’re ready to sell out for whatever is going to keep them there. They’re going to use the stigma of Chicago violence.

Like, “We’re gonna give you Chiraq, we’re gonna give you Drillinois, until you give us some money, and then we’re gonna do whatever the heck we want. If, at that point in time, we have to start making slow jams and love songs and start doing stuff with Drake—we’re down. But we’re going to use essentially the only resource at our disposal—the stigma of being a young black man who’s assumed to be violent and gang-related—and we’re going to commodify it, and we’re going to make some money off it.”

CM: Could you talk more about the commodification of black poverty through drill rap?

FS: One of the more fascinating things that I’ve done with this particular group is travel around the country with them. We were in L.A. recently [with] rich, suburban white dudes, who think they want to be drill rappers. This guy [in L.A.] had consumed all [the rap blogs]; he was maybe more skilled and clued in on who was feuding with who than I am. He wanted to do a song with these guys, [so] he flew them out to go and—I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say—be his young, black men pets. He imported gangsters so, through association, he could be a gangster too. That’s probably the most extreme form of how black poverty is commodified—[like] on Amazon, someone literally mail-ordered them to experience them in the pleasure of his own home.

I asked [one of the guys], “Why are you acting like this?” And he said, “I’m playing my role, man. This is what I’m hired to do, so I’m out here, and I’m playing my role.” On the one hand, they acknowledge [that] one of the ways out of the hood is by doubling down on the super-predator young man stereotype; [but] on the other hand, they [understand they] are reifying and reproducing the same image that marginalizes them in public. They’re actively perpetuating that same thing that’s pressing down on their life chances.